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Sitpah Selvaratnam


How Malaysia Reclaimed What Was Hers


The sensational affair of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) toppled a government and earned the former Prime Minister of Malaysia a twelve-year prison sentence. One of the more spectacular assets at the end of the golden money trail was, the Malaysian Admiralty Court found in 2018, a 91.5-metre luxury yacht purchased with 1MDB monies funnelled through multiple layers of intermediate bank accounts. This book recounts the involvement of leading Malaysian admiralty lawyer, Sitpah Selvaratnam, acting pro bono, in the yacht’s recovery and realisation for the benefit of the people of Malaysia as owners of 1MDB.

The 1MDB affair generated worldwide interest among law enforcement agencies. Their intervention led to the detention in Indonesia and eventual return to Malaysia of the yacht - called then the Equanimity, and now the Tranquility. At that point the new government’s Attorney General, Tommy Thomas, asked Sitpah Selvaratnam, to act for 1MDB.

Over the next year, Sitpah Selvaratnam and a team of lawyers addressed every sort of challenge, under intense public scrutiny. The book is both instructive and engaging in its explanation of the legal, technical and commercial complexities and in putting them into a human, personal and national perspective. Nationally, the author presents a holistic exercise in cleansing and recuperation, undertaken by a gender-diverse, multi-cultural and multi-faith legal team. From the human and personal perspective, this is the story of an eminently distinguished practitioner, with the inner strength, courage, drive and belief in justice to make her way in what has (in Malaysia, as elsewhere) traditionally been the man’s world of maritime law.

Once the Equanimity was under arrest, an order was obtained for her sale pendente lite. The 1MDB’s title could then be established by further use of mutual legal assistance arrangements internationally. Meanwhile, the vessel and its eighteen crew members needed the care, comforts and security arrangements that any superyacht expects. The monthly cost of USD400,000 and the clogging of the vessel’s filters in Port Klang could be reduced by a move to the Langkawi Naval Base. But an expensive five-year special survey was looming, and sale was urgent. Much work was done to assure potential buyers that a sale to a buyer approved by the court would, under general admiralty law principles, eliminate all risk of any other claim to the vessel. But the potential buyers of superyachts are few and far between and prone to paranoia about such risks. This book discusses the law and the advantages which the Beijing Draft Convention, prepared under the auspices of UNCITRAL, would, if agreed, offer in this respect.

As it was, an initial open market tender for sale failed to yield anywhere near the appraised value of USD130 million (kept secret from bidders). Ignorance of the appraised value was evidently off-putting. Tactics had to change, and the court’s permission was obtained to enter into a private sale and allow direct approaches to the Malaysian government, by-passing the central broker. Commission was saved and a sale at USD126 million was agreed. Even so, the author had a hard time persuading the Admiralty Court that the price was fair. But she succeeded, and her engagement and enjoyment are evident on every page. And what about the Tranquility herself? Did she or her new owners live up to her new name? Evidently not. Within six months, the internet records, she was up for sale again, at an increased price - but there is no sign that anyone has paid this. Sitpah Selvaratnam and her team evidently got it right, and she has written a delightful and illuminating vignette about what she can justifiably regard as the experience of a lifetime.
Jonathan Mance
The Right Hon Lord Mance PC, former Deputy President of the United Kingdom Supreme Court


Maritime law has always been considered by many lawyers as a dry and boring subject. Is it true? Many law students at Law Schools avoid it like a plague. Why? Because in fact it requires great passion, high intellect and excellent memory. The subject demands not only reading, understanding and committing to memory all the statutory provisions which contain endless technical terminologies, but also the numerous treaties, conventions and other international instruments a country might have agreed to be bound by. There are also judicial decisions, not only local but also of foreign jurisdictions, to understand and apply when appropriate. Until a few years ago, I do not think many lawyers would have thought that one day Malaysia would face a maritime case of international notoriety. But it happened. And indeed the nation was so blessed with the presence of Sitpah Selvaratnam to handle it. Otherwise, the former Attorney General would have looked to foreign lawyers with expertise in maritime law. The country would have forked out huge sums of money in fees without any guarantee of dedication and loyalty to the nation. As such any doubt on her appointment, as expressed by some quarters, was unjustified. After all Ms Sitpah agreed to handle the case on a pro bono basis.

The case is now over. Malaysia has already received the money for her rightful property. It was unthinkable a few years ago. The time is right for Ms Sitpah to narrate her personal experience in handling the case without divulging any privileged information obtained from or given to her client. It is good for future generations. It is also educational for the public to know that it was not a simple case.

I have had the benefit of reading this book in draft. I must say that it is a page turner! Easy to read and direct from the heart. It is also written with meticulous detail, a clear indication of how complex maritime law is. One false step in the process, and a ship arrested can be set free to sail away. It would not have been so unnerving if the subject was merely an ordinary vessel. Here, it was one of the most luxurious yachts in the world, which only a handful of billionaires could afford. Yet, Ms Sitpah took the lead to ensure that Malaysia would recover its rightful property, so that the money received could assist in the repayment of her colossal loans that were abused to acquire the very vessel and some other properties.

I think the time has come for young law graduates to consider specializing in maritime law, lest this country end up in the near future as a maritime nation in name only. Malaysia should be competing with other maritime nations. One area to enhance is the ability to provide maritime law experts. This book is also an excellent source of information for practitioners in maritime law.

I wish to congratulate Ms Sitpah for the successful completion of this book, and I thank her for inviting me to pen this foreword. I have no doubt that this book will be a success!
Tan Sri Richard Malanjum
Former 15th Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Malaysia